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Chapter 3

Bronson Star was the flagship (the only ship) of the Interstellar Shipping Corporation of Bronsonia. She had started her working life as the Interstellar Transport Commission's Epsilon Argo. When obsolescent she had been put up for sale—at a time when the Bronsonians were complaining that the standard of the services provided by the major shipping lines to and from their planet was extremely poor. A group of businessmen decided that Bronsonia should have an interstellar merchant fleet of its very own and the sale of shares in this enterprise provided initial working capital. But it had not been an economically viable enterprise. On voyages out of Bronsonia Bronson Star barely broke even. On voyages back to her home world, with almost empty holds, she operated at a dead loss.

So the Interstellar Shipping Corporation of Bronsonia swallowed its pride and decommissioned its pet white elephant, having her placed in parking orbit about the planet. There she would remain until such time as a purchaser was found for her. Nonetheless she was too expensive a hunk of hardware to be left entirely unattended; apart from anything else, Lloyd's of London refused to insure her unless she were in the charge of a qualified ship-keeping officer.

The first of these had been the elderly but company-loving Captain Pinner—a typical big passenger shipmaster, Grimes had thought during the comprehensive handing over. The second of these was Grimes. He hoped, as he saw Captain Pinner into the airlock from which he would board the waiting shuttle, that this job would suit him very nicely until his complicated affairs were sorted out. He had quite comfortable living quarters and the life-support systems were working smoothly. The auxiliary hydrogen fusion power generator supplied more than enough current for the requirements of only one man. There was a late model autochef—not nearly so sophisticated as the one aboard Little Sister but adequate—and the farm deck had been well maintained; there would be no need to fall back on the algae from the air-purification and sewage-conversion system for nutriment.

After only a week Grimes found that the job was getting him down. He was used to loneliness, especially during his voyages in Little Sister, but aboard his own ship there had always been a sense of purpose; he had been going somewhere. Here, in Bronson Star, he was going nowhere. As the ship was in an equatorial synchronous orbit this was obvious. She was hanging almost directly over a chain of islands that looked like a sea serpent swimming from east to west—a wedge-shaped head trailed by a string of diminishing wedges. At first he had rather liked the appearance of it but soon was pleased rather than otherwise whenever it was obscured by cloud. That stupid, mythological beast was going nowhere, just as Bronson Star was.

Yet time passed. There were his twice daily radio calls to Aerospace Control and, now and again, one to Captain Wendover, the Guild Secretary. Wendover could only tell him that it would be quite some time before the lerrigan case came up. He exercised regularly in the ship's gymnasium, an essential routine to one living in Free Fall conditions. He was able to adjust the controls of the autochef so that it would produce meals exactly to his taste; fortunately there was a good supply of spices and other seasonings. He refrained from tinkering with other essential machinery; as long as it was working well he preferred to leave it severely alone. The playmaster in the captain's dayroom was an old model and must have come with the ship when she was purchased from the Commission but it was satisfactorily operational. The trouble there was that few of the TriVi programs broadcast from the stations on Bronsonia appealed to Grimes and the same could be said of the majority of the spools in the ship's library. Somebody must have had a passion for the Trust In God school of playwriting (as Grimes irreverently referred to it). He would have preferred pornography.

The days—the weeks—went by.

Grimes considered making further modifications to the autochef so that it could supply him with liquor; even an old model such as this could have produced a passable vodka. Yet he held back. In the final analysis alcohol is no substitute for human company but makes the addict unfit for such.

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